Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema never leaves home without his coffee. It's a big mug for a big guy.
"I love it," Bielema says. "And every day on the way to work, I fill up my mug, start driving in and say to myself: 'What is going to happen today that I don't know is going to happen?' "
It's all about trying to prepare for the unexpected. Because, honestly, that's what life is all about - successfully dealing with curveballs.
Last year was full of unexpected twists and turns in what best can be described as a "rocky" 7-6 season that could have been so much more. The Badgers played a school-record six games that were decided by three or fewer points, with Wisconsin posting a 3-3 mark in those contests. No one was happy at Wisconsin, a place that has come to expect to contend for the Big Ten championship almost every season.
Now, entering his fourth season as Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez's hand-picked successor, Bielema finds himself at a crossroads of sorts in what could be the defining season of his tenure.
"Is Bret on the hot seat?" Alvarez says. "I wouldn't say he's on the hot seat. What happens if he goes 7-6 again? I think it depends on how you go 7-6. If it's coaching mistakes, it's different than if you lose tough ball games. Guys are playing solid football."
Alvarez knows Bielema's win total has slipped each season, from 12 in 2006 to nine to seven. But Alvarez also knows Wisconsin was oh-so-close to having another big season last fall. Alvarez knows a successful and solid program when he sees one. Remember: This is his baby. Alvarez built this program from the ashes upon arriving in Madison in 1990 and taking the Badgers to three Rose Bowl titles. That's why there's a statue of him outside Camp Randall Stadium.
"You had 18 seniors, a lot of experience and three games that could have gone either way," Alvarez says. "You had Ohio State on the bubble, Michigan was beat and you had Michigan State beat. You win two of those three and you're where you're supposed to be.
HIGH-FIVE FOR BADGERS
Wisconsin is coming off a disappointing 7-6 record that included the school's first losing Big Ten record since 2002. Still, the Badgers have gone to a school-record seven bowls in a row - the second-longest current skein in the Big Ten - and have been one of the bellwether programs in the Big Ten for the past five seasons.
"There are some things you learn as a coach as you go along. You just make sure they don't happen again. But he has done a good job. People were disappointed last year."
Alvarez knows Bielema has done a good job recruiting, and he has built a strong staff. And his contract status is solid, as Bielema's deal adds a year every January to maintain five years on it.
"I had never won less than nine games before that," Bielema says. "So it was something that I wasn't used to, as much as the fans and the players. As a coach, I couldn't stand it. So you just have to take a personal inventory. If you start flinching or second-guessing yourself, you will find yourself in a real tailspin. You have to rely on what you know are your strengths and what gives you success."
There's no doubt that quarterback play was the biggest issue hampering the Badgers last fall, while depth on the defensive line also caused problems. And injuries played a big role in a season that ended with an ugly loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
To get back to contender status, Wisconsin will need better quarterback play. Dustin Sherer is the incumbent, but he did little to inspire last fall after taking over for Allan Evridge. Staffers are excited about redshirt freshman Curt Phillips, who is a dynamic athlete but a raw passer.
"Dustin is playing about as good of football as he ever has for us," says Bielema, who was Wisconsin's defensive coordinator for two seasons before ascending to the top spot in 2006. "Curt Phillips has come along strong and really played well in the spring game. He has been in our program for a year and a half. The job is still open. We want to see how things pan out this summer."
This is a learning process for Bielema, who is only 39 years old. Bielema drew the ire of many when he incurred a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing a 5-yard sideline obstruction penalty in a game at Michigan State last year. The infraction helped spark the Spartans from an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit to a stunning 25-24 victory over the Badgers.
"Every penalty [we get], there is a head coach and nine assistants attacking the officials," Alvarez says. "The officials don't want to hear it. You aren't doing yourself any good and you send the wrong message to your players to where they end up making excuses. You should be the voice and tell your other coaches to be quiet.
Wisconsin never has been known for prolific passers, but the Badgers have produced a number of effective quarterbacks in the past 20 years who provided enough passing to keep defenses from trying to stuff the backbone of Wisconsin's offense - a vaunted rushing attack. But Wisconsin has seen the play of its quarterback slip iof late. Here is a look at the QB production from the previous three seasons.
"There are different ways to talk to officials and get to officials, but it isn't berating them every call. I told Bret I never had seen so many huddles with officials in my life than you had your last year or two. It is going to come back to haunt you, and I think he got much better about it."
Bielema blames some of last season's foibles on a lack of concentration, a lack of discipline and a lack of attention to the details by everyone associated with the program. And he and the players have gone about addressing some of those issues.
Bielema instituted a new class attendance policy last winter that has gotten the players' attention. He also has players forming a circle and locking arms after weightlifting sessions.
"And we say 'strength in me, strength in you, strength in us,' " Wisconsin senior linebacker Jaevery McFadden says. "It is the little things you do - like going to class and bonding after a lifting session - that carry over to the game. If I pay attention to details, I tend to make more plays and more tackles. It comes down to doing the right things in life."
Bielema also checks himself with Alvarez. Every January, he meets with his boss to do an assessment of the season. What was good? What stunk? What needs to be fixed? And during the season, the duo takes walks on Thursdays. It's all about learning, getting better for Bielema. This is the first time he has faced adversity as a head coach. And he knows his career likely will be defined on how he and the Badgers respond this fall.
"It's not what happened during the course of the game, it's how you reacted to what happened," Bielema says. "And last year we didn't have the correct reaction. We had some adversity and didn't respond in the right way. And that's what we have tried to stress to the kids mentally and physically. There are a lot of positive things that have happened. We are on the right path."